Read When They Come from Space Online
Authors: Mark Clifton
Whether there actually had been a Black Fleet and a red ray, to say nothing of its having been a materialization of the forces of Evil, was not for the C.I.A. man to say. He, he said, reported only facts. The sense of Evil was one of those facts. As for the rest, he had truly seen a level mountain table of hardened lava with octopus tentacles running down adjacent ravines.
There seemed to be a discrepancy in time. Where a chance of influencing world opinion is concerned, the Russian Government can move fast. They are indifferent only to the welfare of their own citizens, and it is only there that months and years of bureaucratic red tape intervene between the need for a pair of shoes and getting them. The Propaganda Ministry had moved fast. The peasants claimed a sharply pointed mountain peak had stood there only one week before. But the lava was quite cold and hard, and couldn't have lowered its temperature to that of the surrounding untouched rock in so short a time. Since no government office maintained an accurate time chart in that area, or at least no Dr. Kibbie trained scientist of the caliber of Dr. Er-Ah maintained one, the time it had happened, if it had happened at all, was inconclusive.
I, personally, thought “inconclusive” was just the word to describe the whole thing.
This was the most detailed and authentic of the reports. As to actual details, it seemed to me the C.I.A. man must be bucking for a transfer to writing propaganda instead of collecting facts. I was prepared for the remaining reports to be even more vague and inconclusive. They were.
There was one from the interior of the Sahara, to wind up as gossip in an oasis bazaar; but since the tribesmen had departed with their caravan and no one knew who they were by the time our C.I.A. man got onto it (his Arabic was too weak and the palm wine too strong) there was no way of checking the facts.
Another came from deep in the Andes, reported by some mountain Indians; but since this was South America, which knew better than to cause any trouble for the United States, we have no C.I.A. operative on the spot. The report had filtered down to the coast, and was picked up there by some government operatives masquerading as Maritime Union sailors. In due course it, too, had filtered into the Bureau of Extraterrestrial Psychology because it seemed to be something about possible visitors from outer space. Even this department didn't consider it ironclad evidence.
The fourth report came from some all but deserted South Sea island; brought in to Tahiti by some itinerant Polynesian fishermen who had somehow escaped from Tourist Entertainment Service, and were therefore low characters not to be trusted.
I did have to credit the significance of an almost identical rumor coming from widely separated sources, all at about the same time, and two of them not reported by C.I.A. operatives, and therefore not necessarily planned to please the boss, the press, or to increase world tensions and protect their jobs.
A fleet of black, disc-shaped Things hovering overhead. A red ray licks down and destroys something, a mountain peak, a sweep of sand dunes, a mountain peak again, a deserted island. And the horror, the stunning and freezing horror of Evil, malignant Evil. That, most of all.
Even granting that the reports had, by the time I saw them, already been manipulated by the hands of analysts and statisticians, the similarities caught me.
I was far from sure, however, that there was sufficient meat for me to carry out my assignment—how to say who they were, what they were, what they were up to.
And how we could drive them away without anybody learning about it.
We had lunches sent in because, in Dr. Kibbie's opinion, this was all too vital and urgent for us to take the usual and customary two hours or more. I didn't mind. Coming out of Industry, it would take me a while to accustom myself to the highly perfected procedures of government for eating up the tax dollars without accomplishing anything to show for it.
By the middle of the afternoon the various Dr. Er-Ah's carted away their treasured evidence and I was left once more with Dr. Kibbie, for whose ears alone my valuable judgment was reserved.
He leaned forward over his desk and looked at me alertly, brightly, hopefully, expectantly. I didn't have the heart to disappoint him.
"Interesting,” I breathed. “Ve-e-ery interesting! But without further corroborative studies, sampling statistics, and analyses of your analyses...” I trailed off vaguely in the approved scientific manner. He beamed in satisfaction. “I'll need an office,” I said.
"Already set aside for you.” he answered. “I'll show it to you before you leave for the hotel where we've reserved a suite for you. That way you can come right to work in the morning without the delay of coming to me, first. I'm really quite busy, and time, time is precious."
"I'll need a staff."
"Already requisitioned from the government employee pool,” he said promptly, and anticipated my approval of his efficiency in providing for all my needs. I nodded appreciatively. “Your staff is limited to three people as a start,” he added apologetically. “That's standard procedure."
"Enough to start with,” I conceded; and then decided that so long as I seemed to have no choice about becoming a government official, I might as well be an important one—by their standards. And the more important I became, the more important he would become, since he was my boss. “But only as a start,” I continued. “The work I foresee may well require two or three hundred. Maybe more."
He jumped up from behind his desk and clapped his hands delightedly.
"That's the ticket!” he exclaimed. “Think big! Oh, I can see we have the right man. I'll confess I've been a little disappointed in some of my Division Heads. Good scientists all. The Best. But perhaps, administratively, their vision has been limited."
I decided to see just where that limit might be.
"Before I'm through,” I warned, “my needs may run into thousands of people."
His feet hardly seemed to touch the floor.
Well, all right! So that's the way the cookie crumbles. I thought of Old Stone Face. Computer Research already seemed far away, a tiny speck down there somewhere from these Olympian Heights. Of course I'd have to call him, let him know I'd turned out to be the right man after all. I might even throw him a little business to clear him with his Board of Directors and Stockholders—grubby little businessmen, but the source of tax moneys.
"And equipment,” I continued. “I may need some specially designed computers—in fact I may even need a Brain."
He looked thoughtful, cautious.
"There's only two billion available, at present,” he warned me. “And Congress is not in session just now."
"I know a company which might be able to stay somewhere within that figure,” I said.
He whirled around from where he had been following the yellow dots on the other side of the room, and held up his hand in the manner of a traffic cop.
"Don't tell me the name,” he said hurriedly. “Must remember you're an important governmental official now (or will be important when you've hired all those people and spent all that money). You have a responsibility to the taxpayers not to use anything you have learned outside of government service. Where to get the proper computer would be that kind of misuse of special knowledge."
He ran across the room to his desk and grabbed up a memo pad. He shoved it toward me.
"Here,” he said. “Don't trust your memory. You'll have too many things on your mind to remember such a detail. Jot the name down on a pad. Just for your own use if the need ever arises. Press hard, so my lab boys won't have too much trouble in bringing up the impressions from the pages below the one you tear off."
He beamed at me, as if to approve that I was already learning, fast, how to be a government man.
Naturally I had no choice in selecting my staff personnel. It was well I hadn't, for I was to learn that knowing the ropes of red tape and protocol was far more important than any possible skill or efficiency learned on the Outside.
When I arrived the following morning at the departmental suite which had been set aside for me, temporary quarters until we outgrew the space, I found the door had already been lettered:
BUREAU OF EXTRATERRESTRIAL LIFE RESEARCH
DIVISION OF EXTRATERRESTRIAL PSYCHOLOGY
DEPARTMENT OF EXTRATERRESTRIAL VOCATIONAL RESEARCH
Dr. Ralph Kennedy
Apparently my real mission was to be concealed. Ostensibly my job was to train extraterrestrials vocationally and put them to work in self-respecting employment—if we ever did discover any.
My real mission, of course, was to drive them away before anybody found out they'd been here; but I correctly suspected my staff would not know why they were really hired and what they were really supposed to help me do.
When I opened the door, I found that staff already busy at work. It consisted of a middle-aged woman and two reasonably young men.
Their desks were already piled high with file folders, yard-long printed forms with such ample blank spaces that it would take many hours to fill them out, and thick sheaves of bound reports. Some extra desks in the big, barn-like workroom had imposing charts, graphs, and star maps in varicolored inks spread over them. It was a beehive of activity and gave the quick illusion of many, many more staff members who just happened to be away from their desks on important missions or in vital conferences at the time.
I suddenly realized that not only was the status of an official determined by how many people he commanded, but this, in turn, reflected upon the status of those working for him, as well. My staff of only three must have been feeling their unimportance keenly.
No one looked up when I entered the door. They were much too busy. Since I hadn't yet begun to plan the kind of work to keep them busy, even with the excellent examples I'd seen the day before, I marveled at their skill in looking so frantically overworked so soon. But then, I was still thinking as an Industry man, and, instead, I must immediately requisition some more help to lift the burden from their overworked backs.
There was a long, high counter between me and the area where they sat. Standard equipment where common citizens could stand and wait to be noticed. At one end was a gate for entrance into the sanctuary—with an angry notice on it telling me what federal law I would break and how many years penal servitude I'd risk if I entered without permission. Come to think of it, I'd never seen a communication from government to citizen, on any matter, that didn't contain a threat.
I tried the gate and found it locked. I rattled it against its lock mechanism, but still nobody lifted a head.
I went and stood patiently at the counter.
When I didn't go away, the women finally lifted her head and looked at me with exasperation; then pointedly returned her eyes to her work. I cleared my throat softly, apologetically.
One of the young men, the dark one with heavy, horn-rimmed glasses, heaved an impatient sigh at the disturbance, clucked his tongue in annoyed reproof, but didn't look up. The blond young man never stirred from his intense concentration of writing in longhand, apparently forming one letter at a time, in the blank spaces on one of the forms.
Central Personnel had filled my requirements without prejudice. They had given me thoroughly typical Civil Service Clerks.
"Who takes care of the cash customers?” I asked conversationally, after I'd stood another two minutes.
The woman lifted her head and stared at me with a level, intimidating gaze. Her face was thin and narrow, with sharp, neurotic lines running from the sides of her nose up to the corners of her piercing eyes. She could well have posed for a painting: Government Career Woman after Thirty Years. But the artist would have needed to render the work with sympathy.
"You will not be able to see Dr. Kennedy today,” she said firmly. “He is much too busy."
"I'm Kennedy,” I said mildly. “I'd just like to come through the gate so I can go to my office."
The two male heads lifted then and looked me over. There was no particular hostility or welcome in their stares. Plainly they were saying they'd seen hotshots come and they'd seen hotshots go, but they stayed on forever. The woman did get up and stalk over to release the catch.
"Dr. Kennedy,” she acknowledged, and at the same time reproved me for not using my title. “You have a private entrance to your office farther down the hall. The one marked ‘No admittance.'” I was unable to tell whether I was being informed or rebuked. Anyone who has so much as stepped inside a post office will recognize the attitude and tone.
"But the penalty printed below the no admittance is so severe,” I said. “I didn't dare use the door. I noticed it yesterday, when I looked over the joint."
"Surveyed the premises,” the horn-rimmed young man murmured with disgusted asperity. I looked at him as I walked through the open gate. “Who are you?” I asked him.
It seemed a natural question at the time, but the woman's face flamed red, and she glared at me. Horn-rims looked at her with a certain glint of malicious mischief. Apparently I had tried to reverse their status by asking his name first. The woman quickly repaired the ordained order of the cosmos. “I am Shirley Chase,” she said quickly, before he could answer. “Miss Shirley Chase. I am Executive Clerical Administrator of the Department of Extraterrestrial Vocational Research, Division of Extraterrestrial Psychology, Bureau of Extraterrestrial Life Research!"
"Well, goody for you, Shirley,” I murmured. Her lips pursed in vexation, but she rose above it and chose to ignore my flippancy as being no more than expected. She waved her hand then in the direction of Horn-rims.
"This is Dr. Gerald Gaffee, A.B., B.S., M.A., M.S., Ph.D., Abstract Vocational Research Director of the Department of Extraterrestrial, etc., etc., etc. In research matters he may answer directly to you if and when required. In Departmental routine matters, he is under my jurisdiction."
Dr. Gerald Gaffee nodded coolly at a point somewhere above my head. I tried the friendly approach.